Get Moved by What Matters Want to achieve a goal but find yourself self-sabotaging? Convention keynoter Kelly McGonigal draws on brain science to show how resetting your mind can get you going. Features
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Features  |   August 01, 2015
Get Moved by What Matters
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  • Bridget Murray Law is editor-in-chief of The ASHA Leader. bmurraylaw@asha.org
    Bridget Murray Law is editor-in-chief of The ASHA Leader. bmurraylaw@asha.org×
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Features   |   August 01, 2015
Get Moved by What Matters
The ASHA Leader, August 2015, Vol. 20, 52-56. doi:10.1044/leader.FTR3.20082015.52
The ASHA Leader, August 2015, Vol. 20, 52-56. doi:10.1044/leader.FTR3.20082015.52
You want to change something in your life—switch jobs or go back to school, maybe drop some pounds or substitute workouts for smoke breaks—but that nagging little voice in your head keeps saying, “Yeah, good luck with that. You’ll never be able to do it, you loser.”
Kelly McGonigal calls that little voice the “default mode”—the scolding, judgmental patterns our brains tend to fall into, kicking into high gear when we try to upend the status quo.
“I also call it the evaluation network because there’s an evaluative tone that’s almost always negative,” says McGonigal, a Stanford University health psychologist and national lecturer on “science help.” “It’s a constant sense that there’s something wrong, of figuring out how things should be instead. So it’s all this, ‘What do I think of me?’ ‘What do you think of me?’ ‘What’s wrong with this moment?’ ‘How should things be different?’”
But then, she says, if we actually try to make things different, the default mode tears that apart by second-guessing our capability.
How then, do we successfully prepare to make a big change, such as—a likely goal for many audiologists and speech-language pathologists—moving into a leadership position at work?
It’s all about short-circuiting the default mode: the focus of McGonigal’s keynote address at the 2015 ASHA Convention. McGonigal, author of “The Willpower Instinct,” “The Neuroscience of Change” and “The Upside of Stress,” will describe how the alternate, accepting state of “mindfulness” is key to embracing change and achieving our goals. And she’ll explain the power of constantly reminding ourselves why we want that change in the first place.
The default trap
So what, actually, is the default mode? It’s that wandering about that your mind does when you’re not actively focused on a particular task—when you’re walking out to get lunch, for example, or waiting to pick up a prescription.
And when researchers look at what’s happening in the brain during this state, they typically see increased co-activation of brain circuitry involved in language and memory processing.
For example, there’s activity in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, tied to self-referential and evaluative thinking, which is co-activated and communicating with the parietal cortex, associated with sensory processing and visualization. Put those together and you get negative, critical thinking (the evaluative) about your actions and experiences (the visualization), McGonigal says. “So it’s the barrage of, ‘It’s too hot,’ ‘It’s too cold,’ ‘I looked so stupid in that outfit,’ ‘Why was that person acting that way?’”
When studies in this area first emerged, researchers didn’t think this incessant mind-wandering was inherently negative, McGonigal notes. But she follows Eastern and Buddhist philosophy, and to her, this default state is what Buddhism calls the primitive “monkey mind.”
“And the monkey mind gives rise to tremendous suffering by creating the constant sense that something’s wrong,” she explains. “It also fosters this sense of being isolated from others, not interdependent, so that wrongness is all on the self.”
But this default mode isn’t always active, she notes. In fact, other research indicates we can shut it off by concentrating our mental energy elsewhere. To illustrate, McGonigal points to a study on math problem-solving: In it, researchers saw that when students focused on a math problem, their brain activation in default areas dropped. But as soon as they finished the problem—literally in seconds—their brain activation switched back to the default mode.
Which shows us what? Something critical, says McGonigal. It shows us that the default mode doesn’t have to control us. We can control it.

“Being a leader means you shift from what’s best for you to what’s best for your bigger work community and organization as a whole. And when you make that shift, colleagues notice, and new opportunities will likely present themselves.”

Mind over monkey
Enter mindfulness, another Buddhist concept that McGonigal says can short-circuit the monkey mind, or default mode. Essentially, mindfulness is what you learn to do when you meditate—a process of clearing the mind of evaluative thoughts and concentrating on the body, senses, an object around you—anything that grounds you in the present. Doing this staves off the monkey mind and aids relaxation.
Not that it’s easy to do, especially at first. Those learning to meditate notice how the default mode wants to keep popping back up, says McGonigal. But they find it can be trained to stay away when replaced with a new focus.
“So if I tell you to go for a run and for the next five minutes I just want you to focus on your breath, how your legs feel, and the sensation of the wind on your skin—if you do that, you’ll turn off the default mode and relax,” McGonigal says.
Accordingly, a number of studies by researchers such as the University of Toronto Psychology Department’s Norman Farb link mindfulness to improved mental health, suggesting that people actually experience events less negatively when they use mindfulness. Some studies—as reviewed by Wake Forest School of Medicine neurobiology researcher Fadel Zeidan and team in a Neuroscience Letters article—even indicate that people experienced in mindfulness feel physical pain less intensely than those not trained in it.
“You see that their sensory systems become very strongly activated—the somatosensory cortex, for example, and the insula—but the areas of the brain that might typically be evaluating a sad experience are less active,” says McGonigal.
What’s more, mindfulness practitioners appear capable of changing the default network itself: In brain scans, they show a different activation pattern from non-practitioners during periods of brain rest. “It seems their brains are not as easily distracted by the usual mind-wandering,” she says. “They have more attentional control and are more fully present in what’s happening right now.”
Recipe for change
That kind of attention control can do more than help us relax or focus, says McGonigal. It also can help us make changes in our lives. To be clear, we’re not talking about a minor change, like remembering to floss at night—“For that you just use a reminder, like putting it on your bedside table”—we’re talking about changes that can seem so big or daunting, people may give up before they start. These are changes like quitting smoking or ending a toxic relationship.
To make a difficult, significant change, McGonigal says, you need three essential ingredients:
I want. The change must hold important meaning for you. It should mesh with your values and goals and help you realize your vision for your life. “A lot of times other people play an important role here,” says McGonigal. “So it might be that you want to be a better parent or partner, or a different kind of work colleague.”
I will. You need to find the reserve and willingness to do what’s difficult and uncomfortable for you. The discomfort could be mental, physical or both. It typically involves anxiety, self-doubt and feelings of incompetence and insecurity. The “I will” part of you needs to overcome that with, “I’m going to have a growth mindset and say ‘yes’ to doing this,” McGonigal says. “I expect that I’ll get better at it with time, and it will get less and less painful and easier and easier.”
I won’t. This is where you vanquish what’s stopped you from making the change before—most obviously, in the case of physical addiction, the cravings for a cigarette, drink or other drug. We experience physical and mental unpleasantness if we don’t satisfy those cravings, especially if we use such addictions to cope with stress or anxiety. “Every time we feel those emotions or stress, or we’re just physically tired, it’s so easy to just default to the way we usually do it,” McGonigal explains. “So we need to train a kind of distress power that enables us to be uncomfortable in that moment when we would normally give in to the old habit or behavior.” She delves into this concept in her TED talk, “How to Make Stress Your Friend.

“Every time we feel [negative] emotions or stress, or we’re just physically tired, it’s so easy to just default to the way we usually do it. So we need to train a kind of distress power that enables us to be uncomfortable in that moment when we would normally give in to the old habit or behavior.”

Mindfulness coupled with self-compassion, says McGonigal, is the container that holds these three processes—want, will and won’t—together. The mindfulness keeps the default mode from sabotaging our efforts. And the self-compassion comforts us about feeling unmoored and reassures us that the incompetence won’t last.
“Imagine somebody’s addicted to staying up two hours past bedtime every night on Instagram,” says McGonigal. “The person’s just got to keep scrolling their phone. I’ll instruct that person to practice mindfulness in that moment: What’s happening in your body? Do you feel how you’re tired and want to go to sleep? Why is your phone keeping you up?”
The key there is identifying the obstacle to change and thinking through ways of removing it. It’s also critical to remind yourself how the change will help you get what you want. “Change is often experienced as a threat, and when we’re threatened, the brain loves to cling to the old, familiar ways of thinking,” she says. “Counter that by remembering how the change will achieve your personal goal.”

“Change is often experienced as a threat, and when we’re threatened, the brain loves to cling to the old, familiar ways of thinking. Counter that by remembering how the change will achieve your personal goal.”

She points to a recent study in which people who listed their core values before receiving potentially threatening health messages about physical inactivity were much more likely to increase their physical activity levels than those who didn’t consider their core values.
So how does all this translate for someone who feels stuck in a rut professionally and wants to make a career change? It’s important, McGonigal says, to visualize what you want to do instead, and not just be motivated by disliking the rut. “And then don’t just try to jump right to that end point,” she says. “Rather identify one thing you can do today that’s consistent with that vision, and do it.”
Let’s say that vision is rising to a leadership position in your organization. That essentially means you want to positively affect those around you, says McGonigal.
“So right now, focus on every interaction you have with a human being at work, and what type of impact you’re having,” she says. “Because really being a leader means you shift from what’s best for you to what’s best for your bigger work community and organization as a whole. And when you make that shift, colleagues notice, and new opportunities will likely present themselves.”
‘Mindfulness’ Opens the Convention

Hear McGonigal’s keynote address at the opening session of the 2015 ASHA Convention on Thursday, Nov. 12, from 8:30 to 10 a.m. in the Bellco Theatre of the Colorado Convention Center. She will sign copies of her books after her talk.

1 Comment
August 18, 2015
Melissa Page Deutsch
Great article
I appreciate Dr. McGonigal's work and this great summary of the main take-aways from her recent research, especially the "I want, I will, I won't" heuristic for moving towards our goals. Looking forward to hearing her in Denver!
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August 2015
Volume 20, Issue 8